Extortion is not a new phenomenon. And it is not specific to Yemen. Rather, it is an ancient and global phenomenon that also occurs in Yemen. The only difference is that in the Arab world a girl could pay with her life.
In the past, before the technological revolution, a love story between a boy and a girl could end with the first blackmailing the latter with pictures and letters in her handwriting, if she dared leave him. The threat was a retaliatory action to force her to return.
Spreading her story would be limited to the family, neighborhood or village. But today the world has become a village. Today, it is very easy to destroy the life of a girl and her family. Millions of eyes and ears are watching and listening.
What makes it even more problematic is that large segments of Yemeni society tend not to sympathize with the victim. Even members of a girl’s family may simply abandon her.
It is often the girl who is blamed and does not get the support she needs. She is considered guilty because she loved him, sent him pictures, and therefore deserves what is happening to her. And she is still guilty if it turns out her phone, computer or social media account was hacked. Why take pictures and keep pictures in a device or account?
As for the culprit, he receives his vindication on a silver platter.
A Girl Weaves Her Dreams, As a Boy Weaves His Nets …
A girl begins weaving her dreams with a boy, who she believes is her knight in white armor, set to save her from a devastated country mired in blood, poverty and famine. He showers her with love and attention, and makes her believe the day of salvation is imminent. Then he asks her for pictures, video chats and convinces her to expose parts of her body.
Soon after, the girl wakes up to the nightmare of blackmail, as the boy threatens to publish. A Yemeni girls, whose photos are published on the Internet, may be subjected to all kinds of violence, ranging from beatings, divorce, denial of education and work, and even murder.
Mokhtar Abdel Moez, a specialist in information security and combating cybercrime, provides assistance to victims of online extortion. He mostly does so without the parents knowing to avoid further harm.
He gave the example of a girl who was killed on June 20 after being kidnapped and raped. The criminals photographed her naked and blackmailed her. When she did not respond, they published her pictures. And although the parents knew she had been raped, the images online prompted them to kill her to rid the family of shame. She was a victim. But in the eyes of her family she was a criminal.
The number of blackmail cases that reached Abdel Moez in 2020 – 2021, exceeded 3,000 for both sexes. However, only 2% concerned young men, who had been lured into phone sex. In other words, the vast majority of victims are Yemeni girls. Some 70 percent of the extortionists are from Yemen, while the remainder mainly stems from the Maghreb.
According to Abdel Moez, 95 percent of the cases that reached him were resolved either by deleting the accounts of the extortionists or by remotely erasing the photos and videos from their phones in order to protect the girls.
“The victims are generally 14 to 21 years of age,” said Abdel Moez. “The girls are being deceived by promises of love and marriage, and the temptation of traveling outside Yemen, away from war and economic trouble. Some of the extortionists claim to live in America or Turkey, but are actually residing in Yemen.”
“Older females are blackmailed too, often after their accounts get hacked,” he added. “This includes small business owners. Yet they are rarely blackmailed in the name of love.”
There have been cases of women in their sixties who have been subject to blackmail due to their ignorance in dealing with technology. Their accounts were hacked and the hackers found pictures of their daughters or granddaughters, which they used for blackmail.
According to Abdel Moez, the city of Aden ranks first in the number of extortion cases, followed by the Taiz and Ibb governorates. The blackmailers are generally teenagers and unemployed.
Suicide and Stigma
“The victim is exposed to great psychological pressure due to fear and constant worrying,” said Dr. Angela Al-Maamari, assistant professor of mental health at Taiz University and director of the Strategic Studies Center for Women and Child Support.
“It will lead to a deterioration of her physical and psychological health, loss of appetite and confidence, becoming introvert and most dangerously suicidal,” she said. “The victim may agree to the extortionist’s demand for money or be recruited to spy and provide information about others. The effect of extortion on the family is as great, as the stigma will continue to haunt it.”
Once a Yemeni widow got engaged to an Egyptian man living in Saudi Arabia. When she found out that he had harassed her daughters, she called off the engagement. He went crazy. In an audio recording he sent to her sister, he threatened to publish all his photos of her and turn her and her family into a sight for all to see.
The widow does not reside in Yemen. Her family has threatened to kill her. Her sister is the only one who supports her. Through her lawyer, the widow has submitted a complaint to Saudi Prince Bandar bin Muhammad Al Saud, requesting protection for her and her two children.
According to Mokhtar most cases of extortion are linked to a girl’s friends or acquaintances who often work in gangs. They photograph the girls and send the images to the gang.
The pictures, or videos, may show the girls eating qat, smoking shisha, wearing an abaya, revealing part of their hair, laughing, dancing or singing a song. One girl confronted by such a clip contacted Abdel Moez to help her delete it. The girl feared her family’s reaction, even though she was not at fault.
Samar (a pseudonym) had her photos taken from her phone. She was fully veiled. However, as her family is extremely religious she still became a victim of extortion. The hacker did not ask for money, but for nude and obscene pictures. If she would not comply, he threatened to send whatever pictures he had to her family.
“I was part of an online women’s group discussing ordinary issues and problems,” said Maryam (a pseudonym). “Sometimes we would exchange pictures. One day, one friend added a woman she knew from Facebook. She claimed to be a dermatologist and we used to consult her about our health. Sometimes she would ask us for pictures.”
“We had our doubts about her, although we did not express them. Still, we did not send her pictures except for very normal ones of a hand or face. Later it turned out she was a man and had nothing to do with dermatology.”
After he was found out, he approached every woman in the group who had sent a picture with a private message to ask for money, threatening to publish her picture.
“Many others do not have a choice, where to go? To whom to complain? The authorities in Aden ignored our case.”
Who Is Radwan?
Amal (a pseudonym) is the owner of a small business in Aden. She too was part of a women’s group on Facebook. One day her name and account were hacked. “Videos and photos were taken, but I was not personally blackmailed,” she said. “However, within a year, a large number of personal accounts of my clients were hacked. They include traders, hairdressers, photographers, activists, as well as opponents of the Southern Transitional Council (STC).”
“The issue started with spying on political opponents and activists,” Amal explained. “Only later a gang was formed. Men and women were recruited to execute fraud and extortion scams. They had information about the victims as a result of their work in security and espionage.”
“One of the gang members initially communicated with one of the victims on the basis of him being a security man,” she continued. “The girl told him she was in a relationship with a young man who had taken money and a ring from her. The young man did not actually blackmail her, but she just wanted her things back.”
The security guy told her he was a thug who belonged to STC Vice-President Hani Bin Brik. Then he deceived her. He told he loved her, wanted to marry her, and asked her to send pictures of her ex-boyfriend in order to help her. Then he started blackmailing her using different phone numbers and accounts.
He had asked the girl to add an account on Facebook, which he claimed belonged to a girl named Lina Iqbal. She was his friend. And she would help her.
“Yet, I was not comfortable with this account and banned it,” Amal said. “A few days later, a friend told me there was also an account in my name. The account was first in the name of Safaa Al-Nahari, then Dr. Lina Iqbal, and then in my name. Only then I realized that it was the security man who owned the accounts and who used them to blackmail girls.”
As it turned out, everyone was being blackmailed by this person named Radwan, who threatened and blackmailed them in order to receive money. After discovering the truth, how monitoring political activists turned into monitoring and blackmailing girls, he disappeared. He closed all his accounts and opened a new one on Facebook.
Amal’s story was confirmed by Zahra (pseudonym). She too had been looking for help and was sent the name of a girl who was supposed to have the required technical expertise.
“I was sent a link,” Zahra said. “When I opened it, I received a request for my code, so I sent it. I woke up the next morning and found my account was hacked. There are no pictures on it. But in one of the chats there is a video that he pulled. He also entered into conversations with my friends and clients.”
When she learnt her account was hacked, she immediately asked her friends on social media to notify everyone that her account had been hacked, so the hacker could not ask for money from her clients. He still tried to use the video to blackmail her. From time to time he appears using different numbers, including non-Yemeni ones. Yet, she did not give in and did not pay a penny. Many others did.
“Many others do not have a choice,” Zahra said. “Where to go? To whom to complain? The authorities in Aden ignored our case.”
Abou Mokhtar complained about the failure of the police in areas under control of the (legitimate) government to do their duty and arrest the extortionists, even if they have evidence.
“The authorities have had cases pending for eight months, while such cases need urgent action, especially in a society where the girl may pay with her life,” he said.
According to him, some policemen even ask for money to follow up procedures. However, he praised officers in Taiz, Sanaa and Ibb who had dealt seriously with some 30 to 40 cases. Some were resolved in a friendly manner because the blackmailer, whose identity was known, feared defamation. In exchange for a pledge by him not to harm the girl involved, his name was not to be released and the case was closed.
As for extortionists based outside Yemen, Abou Mokhtar said the refusal of the authorities in, for example, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to help pursue cases, has forced him and his companions to resort to hiring lawyers at their personal expense. He himself has traveled to Turkey for follow ups.
A source in the Security Department in Taiz, who preferred not to be named, confirmed cybercrime existed. However, he denied accusations that such crimes are not being taken seriously.
“All complaints were dealt with seriously, and the perpetrators were arrested in the cases we received, and nothing happened,” he said. “If a report was rejected, it was due to the ignorance of those responsible, but I haven’t heard that happened.”
He mentioned the case of a girl who was blackmailed by a gang, which included girls. She was forced to tell her father, who in turn informed the police.
In coordination with the victim, an investigation was set up to ambush the gang. The girl transferred a sum of money to them, while they were being monitored. As a result, they were seized and referred to the Public Prosecution Office.
The source pointed out that part of the problem lies in the fact that girls are afraid and are being blackmailed without the knowledge of their parents. They prefer to remain silent or give in to the blackmailer, which only worsens the problem.
Asked whether exchange houses are complicit with the gangs, he said: “It is not so much complicity, but rather negligence by the exchange houses in checking the identity of the recipient of the money transfer. Sometimes it is received by people not related to the gang, which is what happened in the case I mentioned. With the help of the arrested person, the gang members were identified.”
“We are in the process of issuing directives regarding exchange houses,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Osama Al-Sharabi, spokesman for the Taiz police. He denied the alleged lack of seriousness in dealing with online extortion and any security staff being part of any gang in Taiz.
“Such claims are unfounded,” he said. “Any report we receive we deal with according to the legal procedures, whether it concerns electronic or ordinary crime. If we receive a report about shortcomings, it is referred to the competent authorities.” Al-Sharabi pointed at two cases that happened only last month, which saw Taiz police announce the arrest of a cybercrime gang.
Lack Of …
A 2013 study prepared by Dr. Saba al-Khorasani to obtain her master’s degree in sociology at Sana’a University attributed the difficulty of combating cybercrime to several causes, including: a lack of legislation criminalizing cybercrime, a lack of technical expertise and a lack of familiarity with the phenomenon.
Lawyer Mazen Salam, head of the Touq Organization for Rights and Justice, agreed that a lack of legislation to combat cybercrime is a problem. Cybercrime has its own complexities, and requires its own legislation. In addition there is the legal sector’s overall lack of knowledge of modern technology.
Cyber security expert Mukhtar Abdel Moez advises girls to activate a two-step authentication for all programs and applications, use a strong password and fingerprint, and preferably use phones without an external memory. In that case, if a mobile phone is lost, hackers cannot access data.
And if people do use external memory, it is better to encrypt it, not to save images in a cloud, and not to activate synchronization between email, applications and images. In addition, never open suspicious links of an unknown source.
He also warned not to be drawn into closed rooms, video chats, and avoid sending pictures – no matter how much one trusts the other person.
Dr. Angela Al-Maamari called for educating families and communities in order to provide girls with support and assistance, to report cases of extortion, and not to be afraid of stigma.
It is worth noting that Abdel Moez has prepared a project to help victims, without knowing their identity. When a complaint reaches him, he will transfer it to the competent person in the team, which consists of policemen, lawyers, psychologists and cybersecurity experts.
However, the project still has not seen the light of day due to financial obstacles and Abdel Moez’ refusal to commercialize it. He insists that the service should be free and accessible for all.